This Irish film is about Sandra, a hard-working young Dublin woman who leaves her abusive husband and embarks on a project to build a home for herself and her two young daughters.
The story was conceived and co-written by Irish theatre actress Clare Dunne and is her first feature film. Dunne had heard from a close friend – a single mother with three children – being evicted from her Dublin home during an economic downturn in 2014. Dunne began to fantasise about the possibility of such a woman building her own home. She literally googled ‘cheap self-build Ireland’ and found the website of architect Dominic Stevens who designed and built a home for himself for E34,000 and went on to make one for Dunne’s friend, thus saving her from homelessness.
Clare Dunne plays Sandra. After a nasty episode of domestic violence, Sandra is thrown onto the welfare system and manages to get temporary accommodation in an airport hotel a long way from where her daughters go to school. This is costing her a bomb in petrol. Moreover, she’s not allowed to use the lobby or the lift, which are reserved for airline customers and crew, and she must go up the back stairs, sometimes toting a sleepy child.
And that’s after a day of working at two menial jobs – one as a barmaid for a publican unsympathetic to the plight of single mothers and the other as cleaner for a cranky older woman – a doctor who’s recuperating from a hip injury sustained ‘in a field hospital in Africa’ and who’s increasingly reliant on Sandra to act as nurse and orderly as well. The doctor – Peggy O’Toole (veteran English actress Harriet Walter, the only ‘name’ in the cast) – appears at first to be part of the problem.
On top of that Sandra suffers severe anxiety attacks whenever she has to deal with her ex, with whom she now shares joint custody of the children. This is how we learn, through flashbacks, the harrowing details of the domestic violence which has brought her to this parlous situation.
She’s desperate for a decent place to live and goes to the welfare people with a proposition: you lend me the money, I build a house, I live in it and pay rent, this saves you having to pay me rental assistance and we all come out ahead. Needless to say, computer and welfare say no.
Sandra is up against it but she does have some assets: resilience, determination and friends. Foremost among these is Peggy the doctor, who it turns out was very fond of Sandra’s mum, her previous cleaner. She becomes a big part of the solution when she offers to give Sandra some of her own spare land, and to lend her money to build a small house on it.
Then there’s sympathetic builder Aidan she happens to meet in a building supplies outlet and Aido’s Down Syndrome son, who starts the ball rolling by giving Sandra the stout builder’s boots he’s outgrown. Fellow barmaid Amy comes to the party with an assortment of recent arrivals from Africa and Eastern Europe. There’s a lot of diverse and differently-abled love in the room.
What follows is a kind of Grand Designs for poor folks, in which all that zeitgeisty box-ticking feels appropriate, even if the characters filling out this inclusive picture are mere sketches and barely speak. Nevertheless it passed the Annie Lachrymosity Test. I cry a lot in movies, but not when the sentimentality is over-the-top. Somehow Herself hits just the right tone, because it jerked my tears more than once. Must be the Irish touch.
I would have gone to see this movie just to hear 90 minutes of people speaking in that most charming of Irish accents, the speech of Dublin. And the lower down the socio-economic ladder you go, the stronger and more charming it is, which is why I didn’t mind missing some of the dialogue.
There is some implausibility in the plot. For instance, when the youngest daughter starts refusing to go to the father’s house, Sandra knows why but inexplicably doesn’t bring it to light until their custody conflict comes to a head. This seems to be for no good reason other than to add drama to the later courtroom scene.
The children, incidentally, are played by two adorable little colleens named Molly McCann and Ruby Rose O’Hara. Grand names so they are!
The music’s good too – just the right mixture of cultural tradition and contemporary savvy. Like Herself.